Here's what Ulster and Connacht need to happen to reach their European quarter-finals

A few wins could make everything quite straightforward.

FOR THE FIRST time since 1997 and the competition’s second edition, The Heineken / Champions Cup will go to the quarter-final stage without either Munster or Leinster.

Two Irish provinces down, but hey! There are still two on the go.

Ulster’s better-late-than-never show yesterday keeps them well in the hunt for a knock-out place in Pool 1 of the Champions Cup, while Connacht are riding high as they also have three wins from four in the Challenge Cup.

To qualify for the knock-out stages the provinces from the north and west must finish top of their pool or rank as one of the three best runners-up by match points. If teams from different pools are level on match points, the nod will be given to the team with the best Points Difference (points scored minus points conceded) and if still level the team with most tries scored… (there are even more deciding factors here).

Here’s what they need to get that job done.


pool 1 champ

At the risk of sounding pessimistic, we’re going to start with how Ulster can progress as one of the best runners-up from Pool 1, because Saracens have looked like the best team in Europe all season long.

Currently, with 10 points still up for grabs, the runners and riders for second places* stand as follows:

  1. Stade Francais: 14 points, Points difference of +66 (Pool 4)
  2. Ulster: 13 points, Points difference of +23 (pool 1).
  3. Ospreys: 12 Points, Points difference of +4 (Pool 2)
  4. Toulon: 12 points, Points difference of -4 (Pool 5)
  5. Exeter Chiefs: 10 points, Points difference of -12 (Pool 2)
  6. Northampton Saints: 10 points, Points difference of – 15 (Pool 3)
  7. Glasgow Warriors: 9 points, Points difference of +5 (Pool 3)
  8. Bath: 9 points, Points difference of -24 (Pool 5)

(*We’re excluding the leaders of the pools to simplify the picture, but they could come in to play if the above sides do exceedingly well over the coming weekends)

So, to put it in its simplest terms, if Ulster can match or better the points haul of their nearest rivals Ospreys and Toulon over the next two weekends, they’re into an away quarter-final.

Rory Best celebrates winning Presseye / Darren Kidd/INPHO Presseye / Darren Kidd/INPHO / Darren Kidd/INPHO

Ulster, we know, travel to Saracens this weekend before finishing off at home to Oyonnax. Toulon meet Wasps (h) and Bath (a). Ospreys face Clermont (h) and Exeter (a) – the Chiefs go n to that game after a trip to Bordeaux. Northampton also have to meet their nearest rival for a second-place berth when they host Glasgow in round 5 before travelling to Llanelli.

It’s worth noting at this point that Munster could do Ulster a big favour at Thomond Park this weekend by slowing Stade Francais’ march to the best runners-up spot. The French champions finish up the pool stage at home to Leicester.

To win the Pool, even a win away to Saracens may not be enough for Ulster.

Les Kiss’ men trail Mark McCall’s by six points, so a regular win (four points to the winner, none to the loser) would still leave the deficit at two points. Ulster would then be left hoping that out-of-the-tournament Toulouse can shock Sarries while they aim for a bonus point against Oyonnax on matchday 6.

Franco van der Merwe and Nick Williams celebrate winning Presseye / Darren Kidd/INPHO Presseye / Darren Kidd/INPHO / Darren Kidd/INPHO

If Saracens were to draw (without a try bonus point) in Toulouse with Ulster getting a maximum five points at home, Ulster would top the Pool. Win without a try bonus though and the sides would be level on points. In that scenario top spot would be settled by the team with the most points scored in the head-to-head matches between the sides in question.

Ulster lost 9 – 27 to Saracens first time around, so would need to win by more than 18 points in Allianz Park this weekend to progress by that route.



The Pro12 form has veered off the rails a bit of late for Connacht, but in Europe they’re going strong despite the hurdles of elongated trips to Russia and the raft of injuries that left them, at one point, with just 22 players.

As Pat Lam’s men sit on top with 13 points, the path to the knockout stage is more straightforward for the Westerners. Win away to Brive and get a bonus point win at home to Enisei STM and they can’t be caught.

The Challenge Cup has the same tie-breaking rules as the Champions Cup, so if Connacht were to finish level on points with Newcastle they would fall foul of the 30 – 39 aggregate scoreline in the head-to-head clashes against the Falcons.

John Muldoon Craig Thomas / INPHO Craig Thomas / INPHO / INPHO

Should Connacht lose away to Brive, then the pool will be tilted heavily in Newcastle’s favour. The Falcons have to travel to Sochi to face Enisei this weekend (where they must be fancied to get a bonus point) and then wrap up the pool at home to Brive.

If Connacht an Brive are to somehow end up with the same points total, Connacht must ensure they lose by less than four points in France this weekend to make their 21 – 17 win in November count as an advantage.

Challenge Cup Pool Leaders

  1. Harlequins: 20 points, PD +127 (Pool 3)
  2. Gloucester: 17 points, PD +52 (Pool 4)
  3. Dragons: 15 points, PD +54 (Pool 2)
  4. Grenoble: 14 points, PD +12 (Pool 5)
  5. Connacht: 13 points, PD +12 (Pool 1)

All in all, Connacht will be attempting to look forward rather than over their shoulder.

Pat Lam Kevin Barnes / INPHO Kevin Barnes / INPHO / INPHO

The best four-ranked Pool winners will get home quarter-finals and, at the minute, Connacht are in fifth place. Competition for the best three runners-up spots is seriously tight too, so they don’t want to be getting caught up in this pack.

Challenge Cup runners-up

  1. Sale Sharks: 13 points, PD +19 (Pool 2)
  2. London Irish: 12 points, PD +60 (Pool 5)
  3. Edinburgh: 12 points, PD +10 (Pool 5)
  4. Newcastle: 11 points, PD +53 (Pool 1)
  5. Cardiff: 11 points, PD +38 (Pool 3)
  6. Brive: 11 points, PD +27 (Pool 1)
  7. Castres: 11 points, PD -16 (Pool 2)
  8. Montpellier: 10 points, PD +32 (Pool 3)
  9. Zebre: 8 points, PD +18 (Pool 4).

How do you think Ireland’s remaining provinces will do in Europe over the next fortnight?

Conor O’Shea’s Quins scored a delightful set-piece try against Saracens

We could watch Paddy Jackson’s 53m match-winning penalty on a loop ’til February

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